Thursday, September 12, 2019

Sooty Shearwater Facts and Fun

So, last month I went out on the Atlantic ocean for the day. This month, Todd and I went out on the Pacific ocean for more birding at sea. We booked 2 trips with Alvaro's Adventures. The first trip was out of Monterey Bay which was pretty good and I'll post about it later. The second trip was out of Half Moon Bay and unfortunately was cancelled due to rough seas. Alvaro and the boat captain felt bad for us and agreed to take us around the bay for an hour so that we could witness the spectacle of a huge Sooty Shearwater  flock that had taken up residence in the bay feeding on a school of anchovies. This phenomenon does not occur often so it was worth the boat ride. You can see the black dots surrounding this fishing boat.


Our Captain drove the boat right into the flock slowly so that we could get a closer look. As the boat approached, the birds would run across the water.


You can see all of the splashing water behind the birds as they tried to take flight.


I took several videos so that you could see the birds but also hear the pitter-patter of their feet as they ran across the water to lift off.


It was tough to get a photo of a single bird. They are powerful flyers. In fact, Sooty Shearwaters complete the second longest migration of any bird traveling from their breeding grounds in New Zealand across the Pacific ocean to California and back each year. A total trip of 40,000 miles!

Unfortunately, with so many birds, there are bound to be casualties. We found this dead bird floating face down in the water with a big gash in its side. They are pretty hefty birds. I took this selfie with the bird and Alvaro. I guess its kind of morbid but at least the bird's death will have some positive effects. Alvaro will take it to the natural history museum for study. 


OK, so now comes the interesting part. You need to listen to the video for the story that Alvaro told us. As you read earlier, the Sooty Shearwater phenomenon doesn't happen often. It happened in 1961 and due to weather and other circumstances, the birds lost their bearings and flew onto land. I'll let you listen to the rest of the story.


I really love that movie and now I love it even more.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Best Day Ever at Sea

If you follow this blog, you have probably read about my "pelagic" birding expeditions. Pelagic birding means that we are out on a boat in the ocean looking for birds that live way out there. Our friends Paul and Anita Guris run the trips through their side-hustle company called SeeLife Paulagics ( a nice play on words). They run about a dozen trips every year in winter and summer. I didn't think I could make the summer trip this year due to work schedule but at the last minute, my calendar opened up.

I took a vacation day and boarded the boat on Sunday night at 10 PM. The trip started out great. The weather was delightful, the stars were bright, the Perseid Meteor shower was in full swing. I slept a little bit but mostly watched the shooting stars and the Milky Way until about 4 AM when the boat came to a stop 85 miles off of the NJ coast. In the dark waters, we could see squid and flying fish under the spot lights and then a few birds flew past the boat in the pre-dawn light. Leach's Storm Petrels are most active at night. Our best chance to see them is at first light. We were not disappointed.

Leach's Storm Petrel at first light
Although we were out past the continental shelf, we were not alone. This ship was the backdrop for our first whale species of the day - Cuvier's Beaked Whale.

Cuvier's Beaked Whale
The birding and whale watching heated up quickly with many Band-rumped and Wilson's Storm Petrels following our boat. 

Wilson's Storm Petrel
You can see the Pilot Whales heading toward the boat. The storm petrels are not afraid of the whales and stay on the surface of the water looking for food. 

Pilot Whales

The whales came close to the boat. They didn't seem to mind us. 

Me and the whales
Many of the whales were resting on the surface. They call this "logging" because they whales look like logs floating on the surface. If you listen closely, you can hear them breathing in this video.


We saw over 200 Pilot Whales by the end of the day. The ocean currents often carry seaweed from far away lands like Africa and South America. We often find Bridled Terns sitting on the floating debirs. Here is an adult that found a tree at sea.

Bridled Tern
 The tern allowed the 100 foot boat to approach but then took off.

Bridled Tern
This "weed line" is a favorite for fisherman since it attracts fish that feed on the critters that live in the sea weed. We took the opportunity to investigate the hidden life by scooping up the Sargassum seaweed. We found a bunch of crazy life forms.

Sargassum Weed
This is the Sargassum crab which is completely camouflaged. We put the creatures into a little aquarium so that we could all get good looks and photos before returning them to the sea. 

Sargassum Crab
Can you see the File Fish in this photo? Another camouflage specialist. 

File Fish
 This Jack fish is the opposite of camouflaged.

Young Jack
 This is a jellyfish called  By-the-Wind Sailor. It floats on the open ocean.

By-the-Wind Sailor
 The best find in the net was this weird looking creature. It is a Sea Swallow. It is in the same family as a clam but doesn't have a shell. This mollusk is one of the only creatures that can eat a Man-of-War jellyfish. Man-of-Wars have a potent sting that can kill a person. The Sea Swallow becomes just as deadly when it has eaten the jellyfish. I was careful not to touch the creature as I moved it into position for the photograph. I swear it's looking at me. Creepy.

Sea Swallow
As I said, the weed line attracts fish like Mahi-Mahi that feed on the smaller fish that are feeding on the jellyfish, shrimp and crabs in the weed. As luck would have it, a few of the guys brought fishing rods along. We landed 4 Mahi-Mahi. Here is one jumping as it was reeled in. 


I helped reel one in and was rewarded with a filet to take home. Yum. 



I've been on many pelagic trips off of New Jersey and seen some amazing birds, whales, dolphins and other sea creatures. There is one bird that I haven't seen - the White-faced Storm Petrel. This bird has eluded me for years. The bird is very uncommon but is seen almost every year - just not on the day that I'm out there. My luck changed on this trip. Someone shouted - "this might be a white faced" and sure enough, we all saw the diagnostic Kangaroo hopping bird. It was indeed the White-faced Storm Petrel! I tried to get a few photographs. 

White-faced Storm Petrel
You can see the white face on the bird. You can probably also imagine that the bird just hopped off of the water where the splash is but photos do not do this bird justice so I tried to take a few videos. Taking videos with my big camera is challenging. You'll have to endure the shake but I think you can see the Kangaroo hop. 


At last, my curse was broken. Little did we know that this would not be the only sighting of the day. We found 2 more in the same area as the first bird. Most trips find 1 at most. We already had 3 and then we found 10 more for a total of 13 White-faced Storm Petrels. I think that might be a record for New Jersey. Crazy.

Most of the time on these trips, we get a burst of excitement and then hours of nothing. Not on this trip. Between storm petrel sightings, we saw a pod of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins who played with the boat.


No rest for the weary. With many eyes on board staring out at the ocean, we find a lot of creatures that break the water's surface with fins. We found 2 shark species. One was a Great Hammerhead which is easy to identify as it swam past the boat. The other had a large dorsal fin but never came close to the boat for identification. Another fin popped up. This time it wasn't a shark fin but a Mola Mola. These freaky creatures look like giant man-hole covers with long fins on top and bottom.

Mola Mola
They often float at the surface on their sides to absorb the warmth of the sun - hence the common name of Ocean Sunfish. 

The most common fish of the day was Flying Fish. We saw hundreds or thousands of these as they flew away from the boat. It is amazing to watch them fly for hundreds of feet before crashing back into the water. I managed to capture this photo. 

Flying Fish
Our last creature of the day was a lifer for our host Anita - Humpback Whale. We spotted a mother and calf about 30 miles from shore. As we approached, the whales were under the water but we could clearly see the mother's white flippers. 

Humpback Whale underwater
Mom and calf were quite comfortable near the boat. You can see junior in the center. Mom is so big that only her blow hole is visible in the photo.

Humpback Whales


What a great day! I'm afraid to go out again and be disappointed. LOL.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Learning the Ropes Along the Bayshore

Last week, the Bayshore had zero shorebirds. Zero. This week, hundreds of shorebirds were back from their arctic breeding bonanza. Connie and I spent some time on the beach watching the newly arrived birds feeding on the remaining horseshoe crab eggs and other stuff. There were mostly Semi-palmated Sandpipers and some Sanderlings too. Connie doesn't spend as much time studying birds as I do so we spent time today learning the difference between the species and differentiating between young birds and adults.

Our first lesson was to learn how to identify Sanderling. Sanderling are slightly larger than Semi-palmated Sandpipers. They also have more orange around the neck and only have 3 toes. We didn't focus on the toe thing since that requires a closer examination. At this time of year, Sanderling are molting from their bright brown/red breeding plumage to gray winter plumage. They will spend their time along our Bayshore making that change. This bird has just about begun the transformation. You can see a few gray feathers coming in on her back.

Sanderling - YN=
The fact that Sanderling are molting can make the identification either harder or easier. Harder because you can't look for the same pattern on each bird. Easier because you can assume that if the bird looks different, it is probably a Sanderling. On the other hand, the Semi-palmated Sandpipers are not molting which means that they all look the same. Whether they are well behaved like this little guy . . .

Semi-palmated Sandpiper
 . . . or bickering like these two. Their feathers are all uniformly brown and boring. 

Beach Brawl
The only way to really understand the birds that you are observing is to actually observe them. Spend time watching their behavior and noticing subtle plumage traits like molt. Only then will you truly learn about the bird. 

Speaking of learning, our observation skills also alerted us to watch the Least Terns. Least Terns are an endangered species that nests on sandy beaches by the ocean. Cape May has protected areas for them and it has been very successful over the years. At this time of year, the babies are old enough to learn how to fend for themselves. They test their skills along the Bayshore since the water is calmer. Connie and I heard this guy calling to Mom while he tried his luck.

He would fly along the shallow water . . .

Juvenile Least Tern
. . . and hover like this. He dove a few times but came up empty. 

Juvenile Least Tern hovering
He called to Mom a lot as if saying "Look Mom. Look Mom". Mom watched from the sandbar.

Least Tern - Adult
I assume that she knew he would be successful and wasn't worried since she didn't budge to help. 

Look at the plumage difference between Junior and Mom. Mom has a bright yellow bill, black cap and white forehead that make her look like she's wearing a mask. Junior has a black bill and not much of a cap at all. He'll get their next year but for now, he needs to use all of his energy learning to fend for himself before heading south for the winter. Once again, we might mistake these 2 birds for separate species if we didn't take the time to learn that they were on the beach as a family. 



Saturday, July 13, 2019

More Mountain Tales

We returned to the camp for our annual July 4th family trip. This year, Connie and I spent the whole week which gave me plenty of time for more nature hikes and photography. The first photograph isn't "nature" exactly but it is pretty interesting. To most, it just looks like a dirty window but look at the pattern of the dirt - bear paws!
Bear Print
Outside of the cabin, we found another "home" situation going on. Connie and I watched these dedicated Yellow-bellied Sapsucker parents as they flew back and forth the their nest hole with food for their screaming babies. Here is Mom. She would bring the food and then go into the hole and bring out the baby poop to remove it from the nest. 

Mom- Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Here is Dad. He is truly a good provider. His beak was overloaded with bugs each time he returned to the nest. Typical male, he didn't do any dirty diaper duty. 

Dad - Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
We spent an hour just watching the daily routine. Pretty remarkable. We also took a good hike up at the top of Nelson Run Road and stumbled on a male Mourning Warbler as he was carrying out his fatherly duties. Here he is with a beak full of bugs. 

Mourning Warbler
Mourning Warblers are secretive birds that spend their time in bushes so getting a photo isn't easy. He never revealed the location of his nest and babies. We left him alone after a few minutes so that he could deliver the goods. 

We expect birds to be singing in spring. The woods are loud with song in May and early June but we don't expect to hear birds singing in July. These 2 didn't get that memo. This male Towhee was singing away. He was either done with his first brood and looking to start a second family or maybe he missed out on a mate in May and is hoping for a late start. Either way, he was dedicated to the song. 

Eastern Towhee
This Chestnut-sided Warbler was also singing. At closer look, I noticed that he isn't quite in his adult breeding plumage. He doesn't have the "chestnut side" that gives this species it's name and the rest of the feathers are also dull. Maybe "he" is really a "she" who likes to sing? Maybe he is a young male still in that awkward pre-adult phase? Regardless of the situation, the song filled the trail. 

Chestnut-sided Warbler
Our neighbors, Linda and Frank mentioned that they have seen Flying Squirrels at their camp lately. The squirrels come out just before dusk. Come out from where? Apparently, the squirrels live in the rafters of the attic and come in and out through a tiny hole above the porch. We sat on the deck and watched for the critters to come out.

Flying Squirrel
How cute right? He would sit on the rafter for a few minutes and then run up to the roof and fly to a nearby tree. The whole motion takes a few seconds. Unfortunately, they are so fast and the light is so dim that capturing a photo is nearly impossible.  

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Potter County 2019

Wow. Where did June go? I'll tell you where - to house projects, that's where. After 20 years in our house, we broke down and decided to do some renovations and upgrades. After weeks of disruption by contractors and painters, we headed up to Potter County with our friends Jill and Becky for the summer solstice weekend. The plan was for Becky to teach us how to fly fish but the weather made that impossible. It rained for 3 weeks straight prior to our arrival making the streams unfishable. We hiked instead and I got to show them some birds. Cedar Waxwings are easy birds to show to non-birders. They are beautiful and often pose like this one did.

Cedar Waxwing
Really pretty birds are great to show non-birders. Unfortunately, many of the pretty birds are often difficult to see. Blackburnian Warblers are usually bouncing around at the tops of trees which puts them in that "difficult-to-see" category. Not this guy. This guy was flitting around in a walnut tree at eye level right in our yard making it easy for Jill to see. She was impressed.

Blackburnian Warbler
I snuck away to do some early morning photography down by the stream while the others lounged at the camp. There is a place where I can stand on the road at the tree top level which makes it easy to photograph yellow warblers and willow flycatchers. On this day, the stream was running high and fast. I heard a quack and saw a mother Common Merganser swimming against the current followed by 3 tiny ducklings. Wait til you see how cute this is:


Look how fast #3 swam to catch up! And then it got cuter. I snuck upstream to get an angle for some photographs. Mom didn't know that I was there until I moved. Then, she sounded the alarm call and the ducklings hustled close and jumped onto her back for safety.

Common Mergansers
I don't know where #3 was. Only 2 jumped on her back. I left them alone to continue their upbringing. 

We did see a fish this weekend when we went to the Austin Dam. This is a Sucker Fish that was swimming around a clear pool of water below the dam ruins. 

Suckerfish
Colorful birds aren't the only attraction on our hikes. Jill spotted this Red Eft along the logging road. 

Red Eft
All-in-all it was a great weekend despite not being able to fish. The good news for me and Connie is that we were headed back to Potter for a whole week over July 4th holiday. More about that soon.


Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Back to Birds

Let's start this post out with a Ruby-throated Hummingbird nest. Harvey found this nest in Belleplain State Park while looking for another bird. Here is the female sitting in the nest.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Nest
The bird that Harvey was looking for was this Kentucky Warbler. We heard the bird singing along Pine Swamp Road a few times. I went back to the spot to see if I could get a photo and was really pleased to get a few. 

Kentucky Warbler

Kentucky Warbler
Another bird that we often here singing in Belleplain is Prothonotary Warbler. There is a place in the woods that has a post in the middle of the creek. I've waited and waited for the bird to perch on that post for years. It happened last week for about 3 seconds. I managed to get this photo.

Prothonotary Warbler
Another bird that usually doesn't pose is the Brown Thrasher. Drew and I scared up a couple who were nesting in a shrub near the visitor center in Virginia. They both popped out of the bush squawking at us.

Brown Thrasher
Back on the beach, I was doing my volunteer duty watching the shorebirds and snapped this photo of a Common Grackle walking along in the wind. The wind was blowing so hard, the bird couldn't keep his tail down.


Common Grackle
Overhead, this Osprey came back ashore with a fish. He flew right over my head with his catch of Menhaden.

Osprey with Menhaden
I was just happy to have a few birds to photograph recently.